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Stunning Symphonic Storytelling

Jones Hall
09/22/2011 -  and September 24, 25*, 2011
Carlisle Floyd: Flourishes
Christopher Rouse: Odna Zhizn (A Life)
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Olga Kern (violin)
Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor)

O. Kern (© Fernando Baez)

Cinematic, powerful and virtuosic are the three words that spring immediately to mind when considering the Houston Symphony's excellent program over the weekend. A thoughtfully selected program bolstered by Romantic heavyweights and featuring an extraordinary modern work inspired awe and appreciation.

Music director Hans Graf has been in the process of resurrecting several fanfares written for the City of Houston's sesquicentennial celebrations in 1986. Tonight's offering was Carlisle Floyd's Flourishes. The motivically economic four-minute work was the most unabashedly similar in tone to current movie scores, several gestures seeming to come straight from the opening credits of the most recent action-adventure film. Brass and timpani were featured throughout, and played expertly.

Fortunately there was a truly substantial offering of new music on the program to complement the Floyd opener. Christopher Rouse's Odna Zhizn is easily one of the most affecting and effective pieces of American orchestral music I've heard in quite some time. Rouse masterfully sculpts the trademark gestures of his style—eerie passages of suspense, impossibly dissonant orchestral struggles of cataclysmic violence, extremes of loud and soft, fast and slow, beautiful and ugly—into a 15-minute work that is engaging from first note to last. The composer's always-imaginative orchestration here emphasized ethereal harp and celesta gestures, low brass dissonances smeared in pitch by lion's roar and exacerbated in decibels by rattle, and athletic tutti moments punctuated by virtuosic keyboard percussion passages. Graf gave a touching description of the work prior to its performance, describing in simple and direct terms its progression from danger to peace. This is audible in the work, but even the alleged peaceful last third of it is tinged with piquant dissonances—echoes of a troubled past that simply can't be escaped. The orchestra cannot be congratulated heavily enough for its outstanding, committed performance. The New York Philharmonic's 2009 premiere is available on their website, but one hopes for a release of the HSO's more searching, dramatic and emphatic performance on some sort of commercially-available recording.

Olga Kern's thrilling rendition of Liszt's second piano concerto continued the trend of the concert. Although technically an 'abstract' piece of music, Kern seemed intent on taking the listener on a distinct journey. I've long admired her pianism, and her virtuosity and poetry were on fine display here. She is not a tame player, but knows when to rein in her enormous tone and flamboyance in moments of shear beauty, of which there are many in this score. Regardless of dynamic level or technical difficulty, the most impressive aspects of her playing are a consistent attention to voicing and rhythmic integrity, making even the most complex passages easy for the listener to digest. Graf was along for the ride throughout, matching Kern's extroverted rendition with rhythmically taut direction and allowing his soloists, especially principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith, due freedom to create moments of chamber music repose in the middle of the maelstrom. The audience literally jumped out of their seats after the final note, and Kern stunned with Moskowski's Étincelles as an encore.

After intermission, Strauss' mammoth Ein Heldenleben was given a performance that the Houston orchestra is equal to any in the world. For all intents and purposes, this was a technically flawless performance of an extremely complex score, and Graf matched this with excellent pacing and a successful overall vision of the shape of the piece. The heroic opening melody, with horns resoundingly audible along with the strings, conveyed a fearless commitment to making this a memorable performance. Throughout, woodwind snickering, string warmth, percussion barrages, and brass assaults were tossed off with thrilling ease and impressive impact. The tender passages impressed, too, notably Frank Huang's superlative delivery of the concertmaster solo. While the first two-thirds of the piece are almost invariably successful if the performance is technically up to snuff, the final portion can be an interpretive challenge. Not so for Graf, who, helped with the rich tone of his string section and excellent solos from woodwind and horn principals, sustained intensity and interest throughout the work's dénouement. It was smart to project supertitles of the main sections' descriptions to help some audience members through the 45-minute narrative. This was a wonderful finale to an imaginatively conceived quartet of pieces delivered with technical exactitude and, above all, musical commitment.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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